February 8, 2006
Chocolate That Flashes Its Passport
By KIM SEVERSON
HIS name was Conrad Miller, and he would be our chocolate sommelier for the afternoon.
So it has come to this. Chocolate, a comfortable world that for many people exists between the downscale joy of a Kit Kat bar and the exhilaration of a well-made ganache, now requires a sommelier.
It is no longer enough to understand the difference between milk and bittersweet. Even the know-it-all chocolate cowboys who brag about eating nothing less than 85 percent cocoa bars are out of their league.
Now, the game is all about origin. As with olive oil or coffee, knowing where one’s chocolate came from is starting to matter. Even the most casual wine drinker can name a preferred varietal, and the neophyte cheese fan understands that Brie is French and good Cheddar comes from England.
Terroir, it turns out, matters in chocolate, too.
That’s where Mr. Miller comes in. He’s a part-time musician with Midwest Mennonite roots, but he looks perfectly at home in the Flatiron district, where the French chocolate maker Michel Cluizel opened a shop in November at ABC Carpet and Home. It is Mr. Cluizel’s only shop in America and much of the chocolate reflects the specific piece of land where the cacao beans were grown.
Mr. Miller’s job is to help the baffled but curious make sense of it all. His tools are a tray of foil-wrapped chocolate wafers from several countries, a glass of water and a little bowl of tortilla chips — he prefers unsalted — to provide a palate scrub.
One day last week, he walked me through a $35 tasting. We pondered the snappy break and acidic finish of chocolate from the African island of São Tomé and discussed how growing cacao trees in the soil of a former mango grove might result in chocolate with a faint flash of the fruit. We contemplated the raisiny ways of a bar from Papua New Guinea, which Mr. Miller suggested would go well with port.
Each chocolate wafer had its story, which Mr. Miller was happy to tell. “It’s like reading a novel and eating a novel all at the same time,” he said.
But when it comes down to it, can he really discern Ghana from Grenada? Ecuador from Colombia?
“Regions I can tell. Continents, at least,” he said. “I’m still working on the countries.”
If our chocolate sommelier can’t understand it all, is there hope for the rest of us?
Even those who turn cacao pods into artisanal chocolate haven’t quite settled on a lexicon for this new way of contemplating chocolate. Maricel E. Presilla, in her book “The New Taste of Chocolate,” refers to it as one broad category — “exclusive-derivation” chocolate. Some chocolatiers use simpler phrases like single origin, single bean or varietal. Others have gotten more extreme, naming bars after one of the three main varieties of cacao, like the rare criollo, and labeling chocolate made from beans grown on one farm “plantation” or “estate” chocolate.
Harvests believed to be particularly special might even be deemed “grand cru,” a term borrowed from winemakers.
“That doesn’t mean much more than the chocolatier thought enough of his chocolate to give it a fancy name,” said Bill Yosses, the pastry chef at Josephs Citarella restaurant.
He is among several pastry chefs and chocolate makers who have been cultivating a quiet, intense relationship with varietal chocolates since the late 1980′s, when Valrhona, Lindt and others began producing chocolates identified by both the percentage of cocoa and the beans’ origins.
By 2000, chocolate makers like Mr. Cluizel and Gary Guittard in San Francisco were selling chocolate from small plantations, and the first bars marketed to consumers rather than pastry chefs began to show up regularly at specialty stores and upscale groceries.
“It sits right on the fence between hedonism and intellectual pursuit,” said the chef Mario Batali. He offers a tasting of three different origin chocolates that vary in intensity at his new Manhattan restaurant, Del Posto.
For those more interested in politics than hedonism, eating chocolate according to country makes it a little easier to figure out the environmental and labor practices behind each bar.
The use of child slave labor in cocoa production is of particular concern. In the late 1990′s, reports of large numbers of child slaves being used in cocoa production in Ivory Coast began to surface. Since then, the world’s major chocolate producers and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association have vowed to work to end child slavery in the cocoa business.
So has TransFair USA, the fair trade certifying group, but less than 1 percent of chocolate sold in the United States meets the group’s standards for safe labor practices, fair wages and social responsibility, said Ella Silverman, cocoa accounts manager.
Some companies are producing bars that are designated both organic and single-origin chocolate. But cacao pods are highly susceptible to pests, especially when the dried beans are shipped. And the nature of cacao production doesn’t lend itself easily to organic certification. As a result, the number of organic, single-origin chocolate bars is small and most are not well-regarded by the world’s top chocolate experts.
“Every time I eat organic chocolate a little voice in my head says: Just let me give a cheque to the co-operative, but please don’t make me eat this!” Chloé Doutre-Roussel, the chocolate buyer and consultant, wrote in her book “The Chocolate Connoisseur.” (Tarcher, 2006)
For someone who just wants a good piece of eating chocolate, trying to sort out the politics from the percentages is akin to trying to drink from a fire hose. At the Whole Foods in Union Square in Manhattan, the chocolate bar section holds more than 120 choices. The descriptions and naming conventions range from the simple — Newman’s Own Organic Sweet Dark Chocolate, for example — to something so complex it is virtually meaningless to anyone but the most educated chocolate connoisseur. What is a Valrhona Grand Cru Caraïbe 66 percent dark chocolate supposed to taste like, anyway?
To help consumers sort it out, or perhaps to jump on new marketing opportunities, chocolate makers and grocers have begun selling tasting kits with samples of single-origin varietals and encouraging home tasting parties.
Guittard, the San Francisco specialty chocolate maker, sells a $15.95 pocket-size tasting kit for four, with slim bars of single-origin chocolates all made with same ratio of cocoa to sugar, 65 percent to 35 percent. A pamphlet provides a tidy tutorial on varieties, tasting protocols and growing regions.
For $62, La Maison du Chocolat, which does not make its own chocolate but uses Valrhona as a base, provides a kit with five single-origin chocolates expressed in ganache, a mixture of chocolate and cream. At the shop, in Rockefeller Center, experts will walk customers through a tasting.
Jacques Torres offers big bars of chocolate from Ghana, Peru and Costa Rica for $5. Pralus, the French chocolate maker known for its intensely aromatic chocolate, offers an ambitious tasting stack of 10 single-origin wafers, each a little smaller than a matchbook.
Even Trader Joe’s, the California-based grocer, is in the game, selling a $7.99 kit with chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Madagascar.
Of course, not every chocolate maker is buying the hype. Deciding which chocolate to eat based on where it is from is essentially eating blind, says Robert Steinberg, a founder of Scharffen Berger chocolate in Berkeley, Calif. The company, respected by top chocolate makers for its consistent dark blends, was purchased by Hershey last year.
“To say, here we have single-origin Madagascar or Trinidad, and leave people with the impression that this is what beans from Madagascar or Trinidad taste like, is misleading,” Mr. Steinberg said.
So many factors affect a piece of chocolate: not only where the beans were grown, but the skill of whoever dried, fermented and roasted them, the amount of cocoa butter that was mixed back into the crushed beans, the two- or three-day process of mixing, heating and cooling (called conching and tempering), and the touch of the chocolatier.
“What you find over time is that the name of the beans is not very representative of the flavor,” he said. “The art of chocolate-making is in blending. People who think just about percentage or just about origin stop tasting and just focus on some kind of concept that is constantly changing.”
Michael Recchiuti, the San Francisco chocolatier known for a line of dipped chocolate ganache infused with flavors like green apple, star anise and pink peppercorn, offers a small tasting package featuring four varietal chocolates. He has cartons of Guittard Madagascar criollo chocolate stacked along the walls of his small chocolate plant because he likes the delicate flavor. He even uses a little earthy El Rey, from the Venezuelan grower and chocolate maker who in the mid-1990′s championed the concept of single-origin chocolate.
But he’s a blend man at heart. And he thinks the real beauty of chocolate lies beneath the label.
“So much of it is just marketing,” Mr. Recchiuti said. “I have to literally not listen to all this chatter about percentage and where it comes from, and listen to my palate.”
“Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown…”